“Who’s Marion Cunningham? Isn’t she the mom from ‘Happy Days’?”
That’s what the guy next to us asked the server upon seeing the menu at last night’s Sunday Supper at Lucques. As Cunningham (who passed away last week) said herself in this 2001 article by Kim Severson, “I’m not trying to be modest, but it doesn’t feel like I have any celebrity. Really, I’m not saying this just to say it, but it doesn’t.” So I suppose it was appropriate that those who were at Lucques last night to celebrate Marion Cunningham were really there to celebrate her and those who weren’t were simply happy beneficiaries of a meal cooked in her honor by one of the country’s best chefs, Suzanne Goin.
Marion Cunningham’s death is a sad occasion, one that’s fostered many loving tributes from distinguished food writers like Kim Severson and Michael Bauer. Many of these tributes make mention of her recipes, in particular her raised waffles (which I’ve made before, see picture above) and her baking powder biscuits (which I haven’t but plan to make right away). Similarly, at Nora Ephron’s memorial service, ushers passed out copies of her favorite recipes (for tzimmes, for brisket, for egg salad) as a way to remember her.
These recipes aren’t like letters found in a shoebox or dusty pictures hanging on a wall. Most artifacts from someone’s life are inanimate, frozen-in-time. Letters and pictures don’t ask anything of you; recipes do. To follow a recipe, you have to go food shopping. You have to get out your cooking equipment. You have to pre-heat the oven. You have to prep your ingredients. Most importantly, you have to conjure forth—patiently, carefully, thoughtfully—a specific taste that replicates, in some way, the taste captured by the recipe author when they wrote down those words.
The first time that I encountered meat pride was in high school. A new restaurant opened up in our town called Cheeburger Cheeburger. On the wall in the back were framed portraits of people who’d survived the Cheeburger Cheeburger challenge: they’d consumed a one pound burger and, consequently, earned themselves a spot on the wall (but not, I imagine, a free cardiological exam). Someone that we knew, a family friend (who shall remain nameless), once proudly declared that he had won Cheeburger Cheeburger’s greatest honor. I didn’t know whether to cheer or throw up.
When my cookbook publicist Molly mentioned, earlier this year, that I’d be speaking at the American Library Association conference in Anaheim in June, she casually mentioned that I should bring samples of a recipe from the cookbook. I said, “sure,” and forgot all about it.
Then the conference crept up and it was time to make those samples. For 125+ librarians. At this point I began to panic–the most I’ve ever cooked for is 15–and after a fretful conversation with Molly, we determined that my best course of action was to make the red velvet cupcakes with pomegranate molasses frosting and dehydrated berry powder that Elizabeth Falkner taught me how to make at her former restaurant Orson in San Francisco.
Every few weeks, an e-mail arrives in my Inbox from a law student or lawyer who’s read my About Me section and sees that I too once studied the elements of a tort and knew what kind of consideration is required for a contract. These e-mails often marvel at the fact that I made a career for myself as a food writer while simultaneously earning a law degree that now sits, gathering dust, in a frame leaning against the wall of my childhood bedroom.
“How did you do it?” is often the question and my answer is usually a shoulder shrug. The truth is that I never set out to become a food writer, I just knew that I wanted to be a writer and I wouldn’t let go of that dream no matter how hard law school tried to shake it from me.
Looking back on it now, though, I realize that, without really knowing it, I was laying the groundwork for a career as a food writer. From the books that I read, to the meals that I ate, to the posts that I posted on websites like eGullet and Chowhound, the seeds that sprouted into a full-fledged food career were all planted in law school.
Here, then, is some concrete advice for anyone unhappy in law school who wants to make it in food. With the job market being the way that it is, this advice may actually prove to be more lucrative* than anything you’re learning in class…so pay attention! [* Note: I am saying this tongue-in-cheek. In a single day, the average lawyer makes more than what the average food blogger makes in a year.]
Our friends Patty and Lauren, who visited us recently from New York, did us the huge service–a mitzvah, as the Jews might say–of bringing along bagels from Murray’s Bagels. We’ve been experiencing something of a bagel blight here on the west coast (remember those Bagel Bombs I made?) and these bagels came as a great relief. We put them in our freezer and decided to break them open only in the case of severe bagel emergencies; one such emergency arose last weekend.
I actually said that out loud last night when, at the end of this week’s “Mad Men” (spoiler alert, I suppose), Betty’s Thanksgiving plate contained a single Brussels sprout, several cubes of stuffing, and a few paltry slices of white meat. Betty carefully cuts a bite for herself, puts it in her mouth, and chews methodically–counting each chew–until she swallows it down and moves on to the next precious morsel.
The jig is up! Do you think I’m a chump? Do you think I don’t see through you and your small plate menus?
You’re trying to get me to spend more money than I want to! Instead of offering up an individual-sized appetizer for $12 to $15 and an entree in the $20 to $30 range, you’re asking me and my tablemates to each order several $12 to $15 dishes—at several restaurants, recently, we were instructed to order “six to seven” of these small plates per person. It’s been years since I got a 1 on my A.P. Calculus exam, but I’m pretty sure that adds up to at least $80 a pop before drinks, dessert, tax and tip. Why don’t you just put a pistol to our heads and demand that we empty our wallets on the table before allowing us to see a menu?